If it wasn’t blatantly clear when the Saints traded away Jimmy Graham earlier this offseason, the theme for this season is change.
The status quo isn’t going to be accepted. Last season’s 7-9 finish can’t happen again, and major measures were taken to ensure that outcome. Seemingly entrenched pieces were pried up and sent out of town for other veteran players and draft picks.
In many ways, nothing will ever be the same. And that transformation, whatever it might be, for better or worse, will begin taking place Friday afternoon when this year’s batch of rookies step onto the field minicamp.
Team brass has been cautious not to set expectations too high for this group. They believe those outside the organization often have unrealistic expectations and need to dial down the hype and pump up the patience.
“I think it’s unrealistic to expect nine players to come in and start right away their first year; it’s probably unrealistic to expect four of five as well,” general manager Mickey Loomis said before the draft.
Loomis is probably right. It’s unlikely that four or five of the rookies win starting jobs. Right off the top, tackle Andrus Peat and quarterback Garrett Grayson are unlikely to start. In Grayson’s case, it would take a catastrophic event for him to see any meaningful snaps this season.
And the players selected in the later rounds — linebacker Davis Tull, defensive tackle Tyeler Davison, defensive back Damian Swann, and running back Marcus Murphy — would have to surprise in a major ways to earn starting roles at their primary positions.
The players with the best chance of potentially carving out starting roles — assuming one of the offensive tackles isn’t moved to guard, which would open up a starting role for Peat — are linebackers Stephone Anthony and Hau’oli Kikaha. And even then, Kikaha would have the tall task of beating out Junior Galette.
But even though many of the rookies are not projected to start, many of them should have big roles next season.
While he didn’t receive much attention during the draft since Grayson stole all the headlines by being selected earlier in the third round, Williams quietly enters the offseason with the potential to become one of the bigger immediate contributors of this class.
The Saints appear to be set at the outside cornerback roles with Keenan Lewis and Brandon Browner entrenched at those spots, but things are wide open on the inside, where New Orleans needs to find someone who can cover the slot. Williams could be that guy.
While he wouldn’t technically be a starter since he wouldn’t be serving in the base defense, if he claims that job, Williams would likely play more than half of the defensive snaps by serving in nickel packages.
Kikaha, a second-round pick out of Washington who recorded 19 sacks during his senior season, is in a similar situation. If Galette wins the starting job, at the very least, he will likely rotate in at times and have a prominent role as a situational pass rusher. That’s not a bad situation to end up in, since Kikaha would be given plenty of opportunity to rack up stats and make a sizable impact.
Anthony will also have to win his job by beating out someone like David Hawthorne, but if his college tape is any indication, he has the talent to make it an interesting battle. If he fails to win that job, he’ll find his way onto the field in one capacity or another.
If those three players step up, Peat makes an impact either as a starter or a swing tackle, and someone like Murphy returns kicks, it would be a positive start for this rookie class. And that’s not even considering the potential Davison and Tull bring at their respective positions. It wouldn’t be surprising if those two guys earn snaps next season.
Rookie minicamp is mainly for players to get familiar with the system and get on the field for the first time, but it’s also a place where first impressions are made. For drafted players, particularly those taken in the early rounds, there isn’t as much to worry about.
But for those who hooked on as undrafted players or who are in town to tryout, a lot will be at stake this week. A poor performance could mean you aren’t asked back. For others, it could create a negative impression they’ll have to work to overcome.
So while it might be overstating things to say the battle for positions and jobs begin this week, it would also be understating things to say there is nothing on the line this week.